Expensive electricity, attachment to hydrogen and low-emission solutions are a recipe for the EU's economic failure

Luc Williams

The material “Pass the salt please. Power lies within” (Please pass the salt. Power lies within), informing about success. The EU is on the threshold of a revolution giving hope for cheap energy storage. We already have the technology to produce them at our fingertips. And on top of that, there is hope for sky-high profits. “From 2025, the European cell market could be worth EUR 250 billion annually. Europe intends to increase its share in global battery cell production this decade to up to 25%, from 3% in 2018. – emphasized in the “Horizon” magazine.

Meanwhile in America

A week later, the US media reported that the domestic company Natron Energy had launched the country's first sodium-ion cell factory. Initially, it was built for USD 300 million. lithium-ion battery factory. But when her laboratory patented the technology for producing Prussian blue-coated electrodes, the management decided to spend another PLN 40 million on reconstruction to be able to start producing innovative batteries as soon as possible. The appetite for billions of dollars in profits was the best incentive for the rapid operation of this business, which was founded in 2012 by Colin Wessells as part of his doctoral thesis at the Faculty of Materials Science and Engineering at Stanford University. It is possible that he will soon be one of the richest people in the world.

Natron Energy has a product in which, as reported by the Business Wire agency, “new electrodes store and transfer sodium ions faster, more frequently and with lower internal resistance than any other commercial batteries currently available on the market. The battery chemistry is characterized by zero load during charging and discharging, 10 times faster cycling compared to traditional lithium-ion batteries and over 50,000. life cycles.” Let's put it into simpler terms: sodium-ion cells can be charged 10 times faster than the lithium cells commonly used today. They are also much more durable.

China Syndrome

Three weeks after the European Commission boasted that EU scientists know how to produce innovative cells, and two weeks after the Americans started their production, the Chinese joined the dialogue. Beijing announced that on May 11, 2024, the country's first large energy storage facility built from sodium-ion cells began operating.

The storage has a capacity of 10 megawatt hours (MWh). It was built by the state-owned company China Southern Power Grid, established in 2022, directly subordinate to the State Assets Supervision and Administration Commission of the State Council. The official announcement states that “China has launched the first large-scale storage station equipped with sodium-ion batteries, marking a new era of low-cost batteries for large-scale applications.” As for the specifics, the warehouse contractor reported that “thanks to these batteries, the cost of storage (energy – ed.) can be reduced by 20-30 percent, and the cost of a kilowatt hour of electricity can be reduced to 0.2 yuan ($0.0276). .)”.

By the way: according to data announced by Eurostat, the price of a kilowatt hour of electricity for households in 2023 increased in the EU from an average of EUR 0.253 to EUR 0.289. The most expensive prices were in the Netherlands (EUR 0.475), Belgium (EUR 0.435), Romania (EUR 0.420) and Germany (EUR 0.431). When you notice how many digits there are after the decimal point and take into account exchange rate differences, it turns out that the Chinese will pay 10 times less for electricity than Europeans.

The problem with the Middle Kingdom for Europe is also that the largest cell producers from there – CATL (37% of the global market share) and BYD (15.8%) – managed to go a step further. Together with other Chinese companies, they are working to create sodium-ion cells suitable for powering electric cars. Until recently, it seemed that it would be extremely difficult to replace lithium-ion batteries – they are currently unmatched due to their size, weight, durability and energy density. The average e-car user attaches great importance to comfort. It requires that the electric vehicle has the greatest possible range, that the charging time is as short as possible, and that the cells that power the car remain efficient for as long as possible.

Classic, so to speak, sodium-ion cells did not meet these criteria satisfactorily. Meanwhile, for several months, there have been further reports from Chinese companies about the implementation of mass production of the first models of vehicles powered by new generation sodium-ion batteries. The Beijing magazine “CarNewsChina”, analyzing this trend, cools down the enthusiasm a bit. He emphasizes that these “'salt batteries' are generally cheaper and do not use lithium, because sodium will replace it as the cathode material. They also do not need other expensive metals, such as cobalt or nickel. However, they have a lower energy density, so they are intended mainly for use in scooters, small cars and stationary warehouses.”

However, the smell of revolution and the aroma of unimaginable money still filled the air.

What is the game about

At the end of 2022, an analytical company specializing in the raw materials market published a report on the demand of the global economy for lithium. She predicted that due to the energy transformation, the global demand for this element will increase 12-fold by 2040. Therefore, to satisfy them, in addition to its 40 mines that are already operating, at least 234 new mines must be launched. At that time, the race for lithium deposits began, with the EU starting (as always, with a delay).

Other sites began to be located and preparations were made for their exploitation. At the same time, there was a constant feeling that the extraction of the rare element would increase too slowly. Moreover, large open-pit lithium mines are not much different from lignite mines (sometimes they are even larger). So they destroy huge tracts of land, leaving behind giant holes that suck water from the area. Generally, if a country wants to create a desert, all it needs to do is launch an open-pit mine. Meanwhile, sodium is one of the most common elements. Therefore, in 2023, the average price of a ton of sodium carbonate (soda ash) was only $290. However, for a tonne of lithium carbonate suitable for use in batteries, the demand was PLN 35,000. hole. (although due to the launch of production from new deposits, its price dropped to approximately USD 20,000).

Even if sodium-ion cells will remain too imperfect (contrary to hopes) for electric vehicles for a long time, their entry into the energy storage market alone heralds a huge, need-driven breakthrough. The recommendations of the European Commission adopted in March 2023 state that in the EU the share of renewable energy in the energy mix will reach approximately 69%. by 2030 and approx. 80 percent by 2050. But this state of affairs, in order to maintain the flexibility of the system, requires “over 200 GW and 600 GW of energy storage capacity by 2030 and 2050, respectively (from approximately 60 GW in 2022, now mainly thanks to pumped-storage power plants). )” – we read.

There are not too many places in Poland to build pumped-storage power plants. We are already feeling the effects of this. In the Polish energy system, the renewable energy capacity reached 40 percent this year. So when, due to appropriate weather, windmills and solar panels produce electricity at full capacity, the operator, Polskie Sieci Energetyczne, must disconnect them in order not to overload the system. Like on April 28, when 68 percent had to be disconnected for some time. power from photovoltaics. Paradoxically, each such action generates costs that increase electricity prices and hit us hard. Now, the more new wind farms start operating in Poland and the more solar panels are connected to the grid, the bigger the problem will become. This is the charm of renewable energy when there are no energy storage facilities.

The Holy Grail of the Green Deal

The great energy transformation, called the European Green Deal, which has already changed the Old Continent and will soon change it even more, has generated an interesting paradox. The new generation of cheap and efficient sodium-ion batteries is an opportunity for China for even more aggressive economic expansion, and may also bring triumph to the Middle Kingdom's automotive industry. For America, they may become a tool to confront China and rebuild the industry once exported beyond the Great Wall. However, for the EU they turn out to be a necessity because – like the mythical Holy Grail – they give hope for a decline in energy prices.

The only alternative to these cells that Germany is pushing is the production of hydrogen and treating it as a kind of electricity storage – because it is to be used to power power plants. The problem is that this solution is incredibly expensive. In the energy law adopted by the Bundestag in mid-April 2024 alone, over EUR 20 billion was reserved for the construction of a hydrogen transmission network. In addition, there are the costs of electrolyzers used to obtain hydrogen from water and its production itself. Then let's put on the second scale the price of soda ash available in every drugstore – and even ordinary salt will be suitable for making electrodes in a sodium-ion battery. Apart from it, the main components of the device are iron and Prussian white or Prussian blue. By the way, the latter was prepared in 1709 by the pharmacist Johann Dippel, who mistakenly mixed, among others, iron sulfate, potassium carbonate and carminic acid. But it was at a time when Europe was bursting with innovation, courage and self-confidence.

Either way, none of the ingredients listed above is as expensive as lithium, cobalt, nickel or graphite, which are elements of a lithium-ion cell in various configurations. However, it is shocking how much Europe has fallen behind in a key area in the race of great powers. A small glimmer of hope is the Swedish company Northvolt, which has patented its own design of a sodium-ion battery with a cathode based on Prussian white. Its parameters are to be comparable to the cell produced by Natron Energy. Another spark is the French start-up Tiamat. He also made a similar breakthrough and managed to attract the interest of the French-Italian-American automotive concern Stellantis. The corporation invested EUR 500 million in the construction of a sodium-ion battery factory in Amiens. According to the adopted schedule, it will start production at the end of 2025.

The German start-up Litona, operating at the Institute of Technology in Karlsruhe, dreams of the same solution. In an interview for the “Pv Europe” newsletter, its founder Sebastian Büchele admitted that he dreams of serial production of cells designed by his company. “I am convinced that we will soon be able to use them en masse in electric vehicles and network storage systems,” said Büchele. But, he noted, the transition from design to large-scale production may prove to be a difficult challenge because “currently, even research institutions find it difficult to obtain sufficient quantities of Prussian white.”

This is because it is almost not produced in Europe. It is a variety of Prussian blue, highly saturated with sodium. That is, something that the pharmacist and alchemist Johann Dippel produced without problems at the beginning of the 18th century. So, if we are talking about a not very encouraging moral at the end of this story, this one seems to be the best. ©Ⓟ


Luc's expertise lies in assisting students from a myriad of disciplines to refine and enhance their thesis work with clarity and impact. His methodical approach and the knack for simplifying complex information make him an invaluable ally for any thesis writer.